The decision to abandon the neo-Jean Genet lifestyle was, thanks to Ron’s fortuitous suggestion, almost immediately implemented. Despite a head-crunching hangover, he put on his clean shirt and presented himself at Oliveira’s Language School at ten o’clock the next morning. A brief interview, conducted in a confusing mish-mash of languages, was sufficient to establish that Señor Coulter was qualified to teach both English and German — the latter largely on the basis of Roger’s impressive recitation of the first verse of Heine’s Die Lorelei, which fragment comprised almost all Roger’s knowledge of that gritty language.
The director of the school was a large, sweaty, and nervously harried man, who was eager to put Roger to work at once, but who grudgingly allowed him to begin with a class at two that afternoon, and who furthermore also advanced Roger a small portion of his weekly salary — which was to be computed according to the number — undisclosed — of classes that he would teach. The timetable would be worked out later, and Roger was to keep himself apprised of his obligations by constant attention to the notice board in the lobby, where the schedule of classes and teachers was posted daily.
It was not clear whether any classes he might be required to teach would interfere with his playing duties at the Gato Negro, so he decided not to say anything to Delgado for the moment. If he could manage both, then so much the better. If the classes prevented his playing, then presumably he would be earning enough to pay his rent entirely in cash, or even more optimistically find himself with enough cash to move out of the Gato Negro and into something more along the lines of Manfred’s superior neighbourhood in the hills. It seemed as if things might be getting better at last, and he began writing a letter to Carmen in his head as he walked away from the school, keeping an eye out for somewhere to buy hot chocolate and churros, his usual breakfast fare — especially good for hangovers — with the windfall advance.
He returned to the school a little before two, and was impressed to find his name already on the schedule, not only for the two o’clock class, but also for one at eight o’clock that evening. That meant he would be able to make an appearance at the club, and by leaving perhaps five minutes earlier than he ought, still be able to make it back in time for the eight o’clock class. The prospect of thus doubling his income was hugely exciting, and he found his way to the prescribed classroom bubbling over with enthusiasm and mentally calculating how many classes it would take before he could start looking for somewhere better to live and be able to send for Carmen.
Much of his enthusiasm evaporated the moment he opened the door. Up to this point he had not given much thought as to whom he might be teaching. He had more or less assumed it would include the average cross-section of bored housewives, young secretaries and clerks, enthusiastic salesmen, and middle-class retirees preparing for a foreign holiday. What greeted him instead was a most macabre collection of old ladies; some so old they needed propping up, others so out of it they appeared to be unsure where they were — or why. Those with faculties still intact fixed him with birdlike stares, and with much patting of elaborate hairdo’s — mostly grey, although there were a couple of garishly tinted ones in their midst — opened the books before them and picked up their gold-plated pens and pencils. Apart from the nervous rustling of those in danger of keeling over, the room became expectantly silent.
The class was about twenty strong, arranged around several large tables irregularly placed in a high-ceilinged room at the front of the building, overlooking the busy — and extremely noisy — Calle Agosto, several floors below. At the back of the room, facing the large street-side windows, was a smaller table in front of a blackboard fixed to the wall. This was obviously his command post. He walked over to the table, sat down, and then decided to stand up again. Like a certain more famous chain of language schools, the Oliveira Language School operated on the principle of native-speaking teachers speaking nothing but the language being taught. This was a German class, and all he knew was that they were beginners. Accordingly, he cleared his throat and said: “Guten Morgen!” since this was the only German greeting he knew, and although it was long past morning he had no idea what the German for ‘afternoon’ might be.
A hesitant chorus of ‘Guten Morgen’s came back at him, and then total silence descended again as fifteen or so pairs of beady eyes fixed on him. There was a gentle crash as one old lady fell off her chair, and several of the more senile students who seemed unaware of what was going on let out quiet titters.
He sat down again and opened the course book he had been given. The method was simple. The teacher pointed at something and repeated its name. After several repetitions he or she was supposed to then ask, in simple terms meant to be understood as a question by virtue of the tone in which it was uttered, what these various objects were. The students were expected to reply with the designated object’s name. This was to continue until all students could name all objects quickly and surely. Most of the words listed in the book were new to Roger, but sounding as confident as possible he made a start.
“Tisch,” he said, pointing at the table. Silence. “Tisch,” he said again, more loudly. Continued silence. He looked around encouragingly at the geriatric bafflement before him, and repeated the word a third time — even more loudly: “TISCH!”
Most of the old ladies flinched, and one actually said something suspiciously like ‘God bless you’, but they were obviously not getting the point about repeating this linguistic gem. He decided to adopt a different tack. Smiling kindly, he stood up and began walking about the room pointing at chairs, tables, the walls, the floor, and whatever else was listed in the first lesson, saying the words as slowly and as clearly as he could. and hoping his pronunciation was halfway correct. They seemed to like this, and two or three applauded him as he approached the window and said slowly: “Das Fenster…das Fenster!”
But as he walked back up the room again — without having opened the window — they looked disappointed, and fell as silent as the others.
It was like teaching a room full of hypnotized snakes. Two more old ladies fell off their chairs during the ensuing hour, but otherwise there was total silence as their beady eyes followed his every move. When the lesson was terminated by a clangorous bell, he felt as if he had been reciting some cabalistic incantation. But they all curtsied nicely as they left the room and he took comfort in the thought that unlike the sailors or his customers at the bullring they were unlikely to come looking for him later with revenge in their hearts.
He rushed back to the Gato Negro, played an increasingly quiet set, so that when he stopped earlier than he was supposed to the lack of piano would be less likely to be noticed, and then rushed back to the Oliveira Language School. The second lesson was all old men — but at least this time he was teaching English — and he spent a pleasant hour and a half talking to another sea of uncomprehending faces, regaling them with a monologue on the subject of topless bathing at Badalona and what they were missing by attempting to learn English instead of spending time at the beach. Several of the younger ones clapped politely when it was all over, but most of them remained sound asleep in their seats when the younger ones left, and he was forced to shake them all awake so that the next class might enter. He had an idea he might not last too long if it was discovered his students did better at sleeping than learning English.
The director shook his hand warmly when he went downstairs — which was a relief — and he was happy to discover that once again the schedule for the next day would permit him to put in an appearance at the Gato Negro — just. He felt very pleased with the way things were working out, and decided to celebrate by sharing a round of Fundadors with Kurt and Ron. He found them at the usual place, and they were more than ready to celebrate with him, although he did have to endure a half-hour’s lecture on political corruption, occasioned by the delayed arrival of Ron’s government pension.
They celebrated rather later than he had intended, and as dawn broke across the still largely sleeping city he found himself cold and once again hungover trying to drink fresh horchata at one of the white-tiled combination bakery–dairies whose opening doors were the first signs of daytime life. Kurt and Ron having decided at last to head for home and bed, he was finally left alone with barely enough time to change his shirt and fight the morning rush hour to be on time for his first class of the day. This was not good; more monosyllabic German at eight o’clock in the morning with no sleep and a wretched hangover. Mercifully, his next class was not until lunchtime, and he determined to snatch a couple of hours sleep.
Sleep was not on the cards, however, and the day was not a success. The morning class had been agony; the few hours’ sleep he had been counting on had been wrecked by construction noises in the Plaza. Consequently, he was late for the afternoon class, late for his gig at the Gato Negro, and late for the evening class at the school. This time the director did not shake his hand but pointed out that he was being paid by the hour — or portion thereof that he managed to be present for. He left the school at ten o’clock intending to go directly to bed, but when he got back to the Gato Negro Kurt and Ron were waiting for him, and insisted he join them for the last set of the evening since an up-and-coming local saxophone star was expected to make an appearance.
As a result of all this, the next day was not much better. Nor was the following day much of an improvement on that day. In fact, in little less than a week after he had started at the Oliveira Language School, he felt ready to die. The classes had devolved from strange to surreal. More than once he had come to with a start at his desk, realizing that he had actually nodded off, and had no idea of how long he had been unconscious. The old ladies stared beadily, expectantly, and he barked out another mouth-destroying German noun, at which they all flinched, although by now he had progressed so far as to get at least a few of them to whisper something back. But their efforts made him sorry for them. They sounded a lot like they were trying to throw up.
In an effort to stay awake he sometimes stood up and wrote things on the blackboard, but this was dangerous since he often found himself drawing strange diagrams he had no memory of beginning; several were distinctly sexual in character, and he worried lest an unexpected visit by the director were to put his future at the school in jeopardy. There could be little justification for teaching such old ladies the German for such youthful erotic preoccupations.
His constant drowsiness was even more of a problem with the old men, of whose number more and more fell asleep at every lesson. One particularly somnolent afternoon while walking up and down between the tables of snoring students in a desperate attempt not to nod off himself, he hit upon the idea of opening the windows. Perhaps a little fresh air would help, he had thought, and had thrown wide the large casement windows with a sudden clatter. This, plus the unexpected noise of the traffic outside, had so startled some of the more soundly snoozing grandfathers that he had feared group heart attacks were imminent, and he had been forced to shut the windows again in a hurry.
And then the main reason for this new and strenuous lifestyle that he had thought was making it all worthwhile — namely, an increased income — backfired just as it was achieved, and precipitated an even worse disaster than the potential infarctions he had nearly caused his old men.
It happened at the weekend, when for the first time he had no evening classes. Still hankering after another opportunity to spend more time in the company of the French beauty, whose topless image had occupied almost as much of his available fantasy time as his true love, Carmen, he had jumped at Kurt’s suggestion that he join ‘Mesdames and Messieurs’ for dinner. It had been longer than he could remember since he had been able to contemplate such an extravagance without the necessity of taking out a loan, and aside from his eagerness to meet the ineluctably delectable Anna Raspaud again, felt he deserved some luxury after the non-stop exhaustion he had endured running backwards and forwards between the Gato Negro and Oliveira’s Language School — not to mention the occasional trip to El Perico.
They met, dined, and danced at Los Caracoles d’Oro, and the evening was everything he could have hoped for. He sat next to Anna at table, positively wallowing in her radiance and perfume, and when, during a breathy, intimate interval in the dancing, she not only tolerated his taking her hand but rested her other one on his thigh, was sure the moment had arrived when he might suggest some solitary tryst — if not in the windowless cell above the Gato Negro, then perhaps in the quiet of the cathedral precincts or some convenient park. But he was still waffling on about the ‘impression she had made on him’ when the toll for his excesses was exacted.
The first sign was an embarrassing stomach rumble, which he pretended to ignore, although he was sure he detected a slight raising of one of her beautiful eyebrows, but almost immediately he felt an abdominal gurgling which he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt could not be ignored, even were he with a hundred Anna Raspauds, all ready to rip off their clothes and fall at his feet. Annoyed and humiliated at the same time, he jumped up and ran for the toilets. He was only partially successful. Too soiled to reenter polite society, he was forced to wait until Kurt came looking for him. He explained his mortifying predicament and left by the back entrance, making Kurt promise to invent some face-saving excuse — especially to Anna.
The cool night air precipitated another attack that put paid to any idea he might have had about taking a taxi home; he was now in too much of a mess. He was also feverish, and growing steadily worse by the minute. In fact, by the time he had dragged himself up the stairs and into his tiny room at the Gato Negro he felt so bad that he would not have cared if news of his condition, far from being discreetly withheld from Anna Raspaud, had been broadcast to the entire world.
The next thirty-six hours passed by like an agonizing nightmare of which he was only vaguely aware. Word of his distress filtered down to Delgado by noon the next day when the toilet at the end of Roger’s hall became unusable by anyone else. He sent up a janitor to see what was the matter and the janitor returned with news of the ‘Ingleses’s imminent demise’. Delgado seemed to think that so long as the Inglese was alive it was no great concern of his, but since it would be difficult to find a replacement pianist on short notice he condescended to send up one of the Moroccan waitresses to see if she could straighten him out sufficiently to sit on the piano bench.
He was later appalled to think what native cure Ouida, the Moroccan, might have subjected him to had she had a free hand, but as it was she met Kurt on her way upstairs, and Kurt promptly seized the opportunity to practise the results of his five years at medical school. At first, Roger was too weak and so barely conscious that Kurt was unable to do much. But by the second day he had filled the sink on the wall in Roger’s room with a cement-like mixture of bananas and oatmeal, which he encouraged Roger to eat every time he opened a weak and watery eye. He did not have the strength to object that he had been in the habit of using the sink as a urinal, and took tiny mouthfuls which he then spat out when Kurt was looking the other way. During the intervals when Kurt was absent Ouida was left to keep an eye on the patient, and she would look in from time to time and mutter guttural soothingnesses in Arabic. Short and dark, and habitually dressed in intricately flowery clothes, she took on the persona of Florence Nightingale and Anna Raspaud combined so far as the semi-delirious Roger was concerned, and he gradually became attached to her the way many a patient comes to rely on his nurse, or a captive on his jailor. By the third day he was able to sip a little of the acrid tea she brought him, but he was more interested in the warmth and mysteriousness of her voluminous dress. His feeble attempts to bury his head or at least his hands into her warm spots were met with patient but firm reproof.
“Tu me dégoûttes, tu me dégoûttes,” she repeated over and over, and he thought she was being coy, and encouraging him. If only he had a little more strength. It was a long time later that he learnt that what she had been saying — with a heavy Moroccan accent — was ‘You disgust me, you disgust me.’
At last Kurt gave up on the banana and oatmeal cure and helped a partially recovered Roger downstairs for the first time in four days and into the nearest farmacia. The pharmacist took one look at the pathetic figure before him, and barely paying any attention to Kurt’s lengthy medical diagnosis handed over some medicine that took effect almost at once. His only surprise came when he discovered how long Roger had been in Spain before succumbing to what in Mexico is jokingly referred to as ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’.
“It must be due to the fact that since your arrival you have eaten so poorly that your system had nothing to react against,” surmised Kurt, learnedly. “Only after you indulged in some genuine cuisine at Los Caracoles, could the inevitable take place. Now, no doubt, you will be fine.”
Feeling considerably chastened for his excesses, his lack of discipline — he had written almost nothing since meting Kurt — and his shameful hankerings after Anna Raspaud — who in any event he now learnt had indeed moved into Carlos Vargas’s flat — he resumed work at the Language School, presenting a doctor’s note provided by Kurt, written on the impressive Unicorn stationery. He so far prevailed on Delgado, who more than anything else was relieved that his plumbing was once again in working order, that in return for a modest increase in rent he kept not only his windowless cell but also his piano job at the club; both, he promised himself, only for the shortest possible while. The chief consideration in this deal had been the opportunity of using the piano during the mornings before the club opened — and then only provided he had no classes to teach.
Once again dedication and determination were the order of the day. But it was difficult. His good intentions were constantly undermined by his erratic and unpredictable teaching timetable; he never knew from day to day when he might have to teach. And to make matters worse, his classes were always awkwardly scheduled; he rarely had two consecutive classes. Most often there was a gap too short to get back to the club and do anything useful, but too long to be idled away in good conscience.
He thought of Jorge’s offer to play the piano at El Perico, but knew the distractions would be too great. As it was, it was only with the greatest difficulty that he suppressed periodic urges to visit Inés.
It was now close to Christmas, and he was becoming depressed by the apparent hopelessness of his struggle to better his situation as well as continue writing the Suite, when fate rewarded him for his doggedness.
He came home from the school one evening to hear the unusual strains of Dixieland jazz emanating from the Gato Negro. This was so unlike the usual avant-garde fare that the Gato Negro was known for that he at first thought it could not possibly be live music, but must be some especially loud record. As he pushed his way into the club, noticing a different clientele than was usual, he realized that, in fact, there was a live Dixieland band playing, and a Dutch one at that.
The music was irrepressibly festive, and instead of going directly upstairs to squeeze out a few more bars of the Suite he ordered a beer and decided to stick around for a while. He had hardly picked up the beer a scowling Jaime pushed at him when he heard a voice at his side.
“You’re English, aren’t you?”
He looked around and smiled at a pretty girl sitting at the bar with a stack of music before her. “Yes, I am. My name’s Roger. Who are you?”
“Anne Rasche. I’m with the band. They said there was an English musician living here when we came in. I guessed you must be him from your long hair and your accent.” She smiled again and continued: “Do you think you could buy me something to drink until my boyfriend finishes this set. This bartender won’t give me any credit, and says he can’t serve women anyway?”
“Which one’s your boyfriend?”
“Would you like a beer, or something else?”
“A beer would be great, thank you. How long have you lived here?”
“Seems like forever. How long are you going to be here?”
“Just until Christmas. Then we go over to Ibiza for two weeks. Frankly, I can’t wait to get home.”
“Eindhoven. Do you know it?”
She sipped her beer and he watched her over the top of his glass. Short blond hair, a square face with high cheekbones; she reminded him of Sarah with her hair cut. Funny she should be called Anne, with the last ‘e’ pronounced as a separate syllable; almost like Anna…Anna Raspaud. Yet how different. They were both beautiful, but where Anna Raspaud was sophisticated and seductively manipulative this Anne was open and guileless.
“What’s all the music?” he asked, indicating the pile in font of her.
“Oh, it’s arrangements Dirk is working on for the band. He plays drums but he really wants to be an arranger.”
Before very long they had become fast friends. She was so easy to talk to it was as if they had known each other for years. When the set was over she introduced Dirk and the rest of the band, and they all shared several rounds of beers before it was time to play again. There was something very unassumingly dedicated about this honest Dutch band, working their way around Europe. So much so that, mindful of his own resolve and inspired by his new friends, Roger said goodnight and went upstairs to work on the Suite in a much happier frame of mind than he’d been in when he’d arrived — but not before promising to get together the next day and show them around,
Happily he had no classes until late in the afternoon the following day, and after his habitual morning chocolate-and-churros, he found himself leading a mini-tour around the more colourful parts of the Barrio Chino. At lunchtime Dirk and a couple of the other band members who had been with them remarked that they had a rehearsal planned for the afternoon, and before he knew it Roger found himself alone with Anne headed for a cable-car ride up Montjuich.
The heights to the west of the city, which the cable car ascended slowly but often dramatically, afforded a bird’s-eye view of the entire basin. They were alone in the swaying car for the last half of the journey to El Cumbre — the summit — and the glass windows magnified the heat of the sun so that it was almost warmer in the car than outside during the middle of the summer. They had been quiet for a few moments, almost the first lull in their easy conversation all day, and Roger was suddenly aware of the perspiration breaking out on his brow. He took off his sunglasses, and was digging in his trousers’ pocket for his handkerchief, when Anne leant forward and wiped the beads of moisture away with a scarf from the handbag slung over her shoulder. The gesture was quite natural and unpremeditated, as if it had been a matter of a child in need of having its face wiped, but something passed between them as she finished, and she stopped, almost in mid-motion, her face very close to his. He put up his hand to her chin and held her for a second — and then they kissed.
The slowly climbing car rocked gently from side to side, and they remained face glued to face until neither of them could breathe anymore. Finally, with a gasp, they broke apart — and there were tears on Roger’s face.
“I’m sorry… I…”
“I won’t tell,” she said with a smile.
“No, it’s not that. I’m not…after you.”
“I know,” she said, now wiping his face again unconcernedly. “From what you’ve told me it sounds like you’ve been alone too long — from anyone who really understands.”
“I didn’t think I’d told you so much.”
“You’ve told me a lot. And it’s clear that you love this Carmen, but she is from a different world.”
It’s true, he thought. It was hard to imagine Carmen following him around Europe as Anne was following Dirk and the band.
Are you and Dirk…?”
“We’re engaged and going to be married in the spring, after the band makes its record.”
“I hope it all works out,” he said.
“And I hope it all works out for you,” she replied, and kissed him again, this time a polite, friendly kiss, as was appropriate for two friends wishing each other well.
Anne and the band left a week later for their gig at the White Horse Club on Ibiza. Roger helped them get their equipment down to the ferry for the passage across to the Balearics, and found himself wishing very much he was going with them. They had all become fast friends, and he had begun to feel like one of the band, even sitting in for a few numbers every night. What she had hinted at was true: he had indeed grown very lonely for company with his own kind — whatever that was, although they seemed to fit the bill. When the ferry pulled away in the short dusk of the December night he found himself very alone and almost overwhelmed by the utter foreignness of his surroundings. By the time he had reached the dockyard gates it was completely night, and the cold wind from the Mediterranean made him hunch his shoulders into his jacket. The Gato Negro was waiting for him, as were Kurt and Manfred and Jürgen, as well as all his baffled old ladies and all his sleepy old men, but the feeling that his world was out there on the ferry, over there on Ibiza, and even farther away in England, suddenly became impossible to refute.
It was not exactly homesickness or loneliness. It was not that he still felt lost in an alien environment the way he had months before. He had friends, a job — several jobs. He knew his way around, he spoke the language, and most of all he had Carmen — albeit at a distance, he thought ruefully — and he had his purpose in life — the Suite. But suddenly it all felt wrong, as if it were the wrong scenery in a play. He didn’t need this anymore. He wanted to be where people spoke his language, and where the effort to write music and the attempt to provide a means whereby he and Carmen could be together was no longer such an exotic farce.
He turned to catch a last glimpse of the ferry’s twinkling lights, and blew a kiss to Anne. He thought of his stupid infatuation with Anna Raspaud. He thought of Carmen, halfway across the country, writing to him every day. He thought — and guiltily suppressed the thought immediately — of the long-haired beauty he had first come to this wretched place with.
As he walked back up the Ramblas with his hands stuffed in his pockets, past the noisy cafés and the blaring bars with their outlandish menus of fried sparrows, frogs legs, and squid, he suddenly knew it was over. His Iberian hegira was at an end.
* * *
The Castilian Suite is available as an eBook or a Paperback from Blackburn Books